I Never Knew My Grandmother

Mamacita says:  I never knew my grandmother.

Oh, I knew the woman who bore my mother and my aunt and my uncles, but I never knew the woman she really was.  I only knew the woman she became after the stroke.

Before the stroke, Ruth Grogan was a vibrant, vital, witty, highly intelligent woman who laughed, read, told stories, married (she actually HAD to get married, as they called it back then when a woman had sex before marriage and got knocked up) had four children, cooked, sewed, maintained a home, drove a car, and was just generally a fairly typical, very cool woman of her time.  My grandfather worked for the railroad and was gone all week; he came home on weekends, bringing his laundry.  All the rest of the time, my grandmother did it all: cooking, cleaning, laundry, childcare, etc.  And she did it by herself.

Dora Ruth Grogan as a young woman

Dora Ruth Grogan as a young woman

The fact that she had a driver’s license was pretty cool – not many women drove a car back then.  Ruth Grogan was an innovator.  She saw no reason she couldn’t do something she wanted to do just because she was a woman.  She just did it.

Ruth Grogan and friend: flappers

Ruth Grogan and friend: flappers

My grandmother was the youngest of four daughters.  Her mother died when Ruth was three years old, and her father let relatives raise her and her five-year-old sister, while he kept the two older sisters with him.  Pop, as my mother called him, never remarried.  On his deathbed, he talked about his wife.  Love never dies.

The Hilton sisters: Ruth, Edna, Mabel, and Mary

The Hilton sisters: Ruth, Edna, Mabel, and Mary

So Ruth was raised without a mother.  Her aunt was kind to her, but she wasn’t Ruth’s mother.  The lack of a role model didn’t prevent Ruth from being a good mother herself; some things are instinctive.

Edward and Ruth Grogan, and their sons James and Larry

Edward and Ruth Grogan, and their sons James and Larry

Ruth Grogan with her two daughters, Reva and Phyllis

Ruth Grogan with her two daughters, Reva and Phyllis

After the stroke, Ruth was a shell of herself.  She was trapped inside her head.  We will never know if the woman she really was, was still there somewhere, because the woman she became, after the stroke, was NOT Ruth.

Her speech was backwards and ridiculous.  My cousin Carol and I, once we got old enough to pretty much take care of ourselves, used to stay all night with her every weekend we were able. Every morning, Mamaw woke us up by standing at the foot of the stairs and calling up to us “Carol, Janie, breakfast what?”  We would reply, “Bacon, Mamaw.”  When we went downstairs to the kitchen, we would find bacon.  Just bacon.

She listened to the radio avidly and whenever she heard a familiar name she would say “Your daddy him knowed.”  (referring to our grandfather, who had been killed a few years previously.) (That’s another very interesting story.)  Mahalia Jackson’s singing made her laugh hysterically – Mahalia sang the sign-off song on Channel 4 after Nightmare Theater, and Carol and I looked forward to the singing because we loved to see Mamaw laugh like that.  Neither of us was allowed to watch Nightmare Theater at home because it was scary, but at Mamaw’s house we made our own rules.  Mamaw stayed up with us and did not go to bed herself until we did.  She loved to hear us talk and laugh, and once in a while she would chime in with a comment that probably made sense to her but was often just out of the blue.

Sammy Terry, played by Robert Carter, hosted Nightmare Theater

Sammy Terry, played by Robert Carter, hosted Nightmare Theater

She could cook a little, read a little, clean the house a little, etc.  But none of her grandchildren ever knew the woman she really was.  When Carol and I were at her house, she fixed us each a hamburger every day for lunch, and Carol and I made french fries and macaroni and cheese.  When we were at Mamaw’s house, we did what we wanted to do and we ate what we wanted to eat and we went wherever we wanted to go.   It was a kind of freedom I’d never dreamed of having – away from my younger siblings and in a neighborhood not my own.  I still dream about it.

Dora Ruth Hilton Grogan

Dora Ruth Hilton Grogan

Mamaw’s child-raising days were over, and she never asked us where we were going or where we’d been.  We rode our bicycles all over town, bought comic books and SweeTarts, made runny fudge which we dyed green just to experiment a little and because we could, played games, spray-painted everything we could reach, dared each other to go into the huge dark creepy closets and basements, and just generally had fun and freedom and absolute control over our lives.  What kid could ask for more?

SweeTarts, in the foil package

SweeTarts, in the foil package

As Mamaw got older, it became more difficult for her to live alone.  She came to live with my parents for a while; then she and her son, my Uncle Larry, shared an apartment for just a little while.  It soon became obvious that she needed a safe environment with people to care for her needs 24/7.  Mom tried again to take care of her, but her needs had moved beyond a single person’s ability.  She entered a nursing home, where she kept ’em all jumping with her antics.  Ruth Grogan was a character, and nobody who knew her was ever able to forget it.  Give her a quarter, and she was on the pay phone calling somebody, and she could talk, in her funny stilted way, for hours if nobody stopped her.  She loved to embroider, and I think all of her granddaughters have pillowcases that she embroidered.

Mamaw in the apartment, doing her embroidery

Mamaw in the apartment, doing her embroidery

When she died, my first thought was, now she can be her real self again.  All those years of being trapped inside her head, of the stilted speech, the awkward life, and now she’s herself again.

I wish I had known Ruth Grogan when she was her true self.  Everyone who did know her says she was awesome.  When I look at my mother, I have no trouble at all believing that.

Carol and I loved those weekends at Mamaw’s house.  We loved the freedom.  We loved “playing on the phone.”  (Is your refrigerator running?)  We loved the french fries and the macaroni and cheese and the fudge.  We loved going to Crowder’s Drugstore every half hour to buy candy and comic books.  We loved the playground equipment behind Stalker School.  We loved the squeaky porch swing.  We loved the garish wallpaper and the old sheets with laundry detergent powder in the creases.  We loved sitting on the couch watching Nightmare Theater, with our feet up so the monsters under the couch couldn’t grab us and drag us under to devour us or take us to another dimension.  We loved sleeping upstairs in the big bed, so blisteringly hot that even the ancient fan couldn’t help us – we were afraid to turn it on anyway because it was so old we were afraid the house would catch fire. We loved looking at my uncle’s, um, “magazines.”  We loved being scared in that house; it was a safe scared and we knew it even while we squealed and pretended to be traumatized.  I loved riding my bike TO Mamaw’s house; it was a route mommies of today would never in a million years allow their fragile snowflakes to make: under the train trestle, up and down really steep hills. . . .

I’m glad my kids got to meet her, even for a little while.

Mamaw Grogan and baby Andy

Mamaw Grogan and baby Andy

I’ve been thinking about my grandmother quite often, lately.  I really wish I’d known her, the real grandmother, the actual person who had been so alive and real and herself.

With Ruth Grogan, it’s always before the stroke and after the stroke.  I only knew her after the stroke.

But she was still pretty cool.  “Carol, Janie, breakfast what?”  “Your daddy him knowed.”

Another piece of my childhood, shared with all of you.

 

 


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